Lights, Camera, Cello

MUSIC OR JOURNALISM?
Why not choose both?

Paula Zahn – broadcast journalist, cellist and all-around cultural goddess – has always found a way to combine her passion for reporting that gets it right with her love of the husky, dusky cello, whether she was part of a musical ensemble of colleagues on CBS or playing with civic orchestras during TV stints in Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Diego.

For the last four years, though, she has had perhaps the perfect gig for a journalist who’s also culturally minded. As co-host of Thirteen-WNET’s popular, acclaimed “NYC-ARTS” (with former Metropolitan Museum of Art director and fellow Emmy Award-winner Philippe de Montebello), Zahn offers viewers a unique perspective on everything from the classical institutions to the cutting-edge artists that make up New York City.

“I look at us as curators of arts and culture in New York,” she says. “We’re filling a huge void in the landscape. And we’re not afraid to be unpredictable, compelling and relevant.”

Indeed, an “NYC-ARTS” program might feature a Zahn interview with contemporary composer John Adams, whose operas are known for their driving melodies and controversial subjects (“Nixon in China,” “Doctor Atomic”), along with a look at the stately Frick Collection in “The Curator’s Choice” segment. Meanwhile, news correspondent Christina Ha, a longtime Westchester resident, gives viewers a taste of the weekly arts happenings about town.

Thirteen-WNET, PBS’ flagship, extends the reach of “NYC-ARTS” through mobile apps and by sharing its content with PBS stations around the country. So important is the show that earlier this year, Thirteen moved it to prime time (8 p.m. Thursdays) from the Sunday afternoon slot where it had been a fixture since its 2008 debut. (Encores are presented at noon Sundays.)

“PBS is the only place you can go to consistently for this kind of coverage,” Zahn says.

GRACE UNDER FIRE

As she talks in the intimate, state-of-the-art WNET Tisch Studios at Lincoln Center – where she’s taping stand-ups, promos and an interview with Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis – Zahn holds your gaze with her light blue-green eyes. She has a radiance that’s underscored by her choice of jewel-toned, autumnal outfits – forest green and burgundy with gold accents. This is one reporter who’s not afraid to get up close and personal, to borrow a phrase from ABC, one of the four major networks and channels where she was an anchor. (The others are CBS, CNN and Fox News.)

When you’re introduced to her, she takes your hand firmly and holds it with both of hers. Folks at WNET like to tell the story of the time she was the only reporter to get persnickety Cuban leader Fidel Castro to answer a question directly by situating herself at the front of a line after making her way through a throng of reporters. It’s no wonder she’s scored interviews with President Obama and his seven immediate predecessors, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams and movie icon Katharine Hepburn.

Zahn’s radiance is polished by a professionalism and poise. On the set, she is meticulous down to the last blond hair that might be slightly out of place. (Still, she’s playful enough to joke with “NYC-ARTS” editorial director Joan Hershey, the crew and her WAG visitors that she doesn’t want any cleavage showing, because “this is, after all, PBS.”)

Zahn has exhibited her grace in everything from hosting the WNET broadcast of Andrea Bocelli’s 2011 concert in Central Park, where Mother Nature offered percussion of her own, to going live on CNN with Aaron Brown to cover the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – her very first day with the cable network.

With fond humor, she remembers the Bocelli event – which began with a storm right out of the Brontës and ended with stars onstage and in the heavens.

“Our single greatest concern was not getting electrocuted that night,” she says laughing. “Our second was that the audience would flee through the driving rain, which they didn’t being tough New Yorkers. And our third was whether Bocelli would tough it out, which, of course, he did.”

Her mood turns serious when she recalls covering 9/11. Zahn wasn’t scheduled to report to CNN until the following day. But when the planes hit, she called her then boss, Walter Isaacson, in Atlanta and said, “Where do you need me? …I need to come into work.”

She wasn’t even sure yet where CNN’s New York City bureau was. But she made her way there on foot from her home on the Upper East Side and went live with Aaron Brown as F-16s swarmed overhead and the cable network was flooded with information, some of it wrong. Throughout the day, Zahn strove to honor the dead and serve the living by sifting fact from fiction. You can’t help but think the qualities she exhibited then were born, or at least strengthened, by the dedication musicianship requires.

Certainly, she has a visceral insight into the artists she interviews, like conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with whom she has performed.

“I think as any parent knows who tries to instill in a child the love of a musical instrument, discipline is an integral part of musical training. …It’s given me an enormous respect for what goes into training and a greater appreciation of (the artists’) tremendous passion and dedication to their craft.”

GETTING TO CARNEGIE HALL

Like most musicians, Zahn, an Omaha, Neb., native, was introduced to the craft at an early age.

“I grew up in a very musical family,” she says.

Her mother, a pianist, was the high school sweetheart of composer Henry Mancini, known for the insouciant “Pink Panther” theme and the plaintive “Moon River,” among other compositions. Zahn’s siblings played percussion, clarinet and violin. But when 5-year-old Paula stretched out her hand to the instruments assembled in the cafeteria of her suburban Chicago public school, it alighted on a cello.

“Grateful” is a word that laces Zahn’s conversation. “Grateful” is what her parents felt with her choice.

“I don’t think they could’ve tolerated another percussionist or wind player.”

Zahn practiced four hours a day and earned a cello scholarship to Missouri’s Stephens College, touring the country in a trio that fulfilled a scholarship requirement. But it was also in college that the journalism bug bit and “the fever got me.”

There were internships at the BBC in London and CBS in Chicago.

“It was my first real exposure to how the news business worked. I loved to take on controversial subjects.” She’s still doing that as the host of Investigation Discovery’s crime series “On the Case With Paula Zahn,” which no doubt reminds viewers of the kind of investigative reporting she did on CBS’ “48 Hours.”

Zahn made her on-camera debut with Dallas’ WFAA-TV in 1978, working her way up to co-anchor ABC’s “World News This Morning” in 1987. In the early ’90s, she co-anchored “CBS This Morning,” then spent three years at the Fox News Channel followed by almost six at CNN, which included her prime-time program “Paula Zahn Now.” Then came the day when Neal Shapiro – president and CEO of WNET, who had been the host of “SundayArts” – called to say, “I want to fire myself so I can hire you.”

Throughout her broadcast career, however, music has remained a strong thread. In 1992, Zahn made her Carnegie Hall debut with The New York Pops, led by Skitch Henderson in a piece Henderson composed for Zahn. Call it a variation on the “CBS This Morning” theme — “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”.

“It was the most terrifying, exhilarating experience. I worked closely with Skitch and there were a dozen rehearsals. But what I remember was the feeling of walking out onto the stage with the cello and playing that first note. There’s nothing to compare to the acoustics at Carnegie Hall.”

Two years later, she was the only nonprofessional musician in an orchestra of 100 cellists playing transcriptions by Pablo Casals under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich in St. Petersburg. Talk about cello heaven.

Zahn remembers the maestro, a cello virtuoso himself, as “passionate” and “demanding.”

“It’s no easy feat to conduct a 100-cello orchestra, but he was able to combine all of us into a rich sound. We got three standing ovations.”

That’s impressive when you consider that the Russian audience is made up of some of the most ardent and discerning music lovers in the world. So is the South Korean audience, which Zahn has gotten to know performing with the Sejong Orchestra in Seoul and at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

When Zahn looks back on these experiences, she’s both grateful for her luck and sad for those youngsters who’ve been deprived in recent years of musical education in the public schools. She’s made sure her three children have been exposed to the arts. Her son, who studied Suzuki violin, plays guitar and composes.

For Zahn, “NYC-ARTS” is a way of whetting students’ appetites as well as inspiring friends old and new to inject a little culture into their weekends.

“Whatever I can do to help the arts,” she says, “I’ll do.”

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